A Cinema of Intimacy: the sensuous world of Wong Kar-wai

Ever find yourself in the mood for genuine human connection? If you can’t find it elsewhere, try to look for it in art. Next time you go to the bookstore, pick Murakami’s Men Without Women(2014)After Dark(2004), or Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun(2021). If you only have 5 minutes, put on some Miles Davis, It Never Entered My Mind(1940) or Blue in Green(1959), Chet Baker’s Born to be Blue(1946), Ella Fitzgerald’s and Duke Ellignton’s In a Sentimental Mood(1956) or Wynton Marsalis’ Woman in Blue(2019). For a visual treat, try Klimt’s Fulfilment(1905), Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled(1981), Constantin Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany(1913) and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring(1665) – they should do the job with a guaranteed effect.


If experiencing waves of emotional intimacy through different channels already seems appealing to you, imagine how such feelings could feel like, when their performance is simultaneous and coordinated. One word – cinema, baby.


How intimate can you be, cinema? As discussed in my Cinematic Tendencies: an enquiry of contemporary art films, most non-commercial films today have the essential feature of exposing some misunderstood or unknown aspect of reality, creating awareness yet leaving space for further exploration. The aim of contemporary films is to destabilize the viewer, doubtful of her understanding of reality, leaving her distressed and yet very intrigued. This can only be achieved if the film strokes its audience on a deeper level, which will produce unpredictable personal effects that might also include connecting to someone else.


So intimacy can be often found in cinema, more now than it has ever before. It is obvious that peoples’ responsiveness to artistic triggers will vary – our sensibility to different topics differs because our experiences and emotional wounds differ. Some films might not be as intimate for you as they are for me – and vice versa.


From my cinematic experience, there is no clear recipe for intimacy. The emotion can be successfully generated both intentionally and unintentionally. For instance, in Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning(2018), Haemi’s (Jeon Jong-seo) solo ethereal dance is unexpectedly mystical and triggers emotional intimacy, accompanied by the heady Miles Davis jazz piece from Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour L’échafaud(1957). Zula’s singing of Dwa Serduszka in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Zimna Wojna or Cold War(2018) also sparks such strange feelings which, this time, emerge by means that can be justified more easily. “My mother told me / You mustn’t fall in love with this boy / But I went for him anyway and loved him until the end / I will love him until the end” is a summary for the couple’s conditioned relationship, constrained by the communist climate and military distress of the Cold War.


However, the most accurate construction of intimacy undoubtably belongs to Wong Kar-wai. His productions are dreamy and nostalgic and persist in a vague and blurry ambience: “He remembers those years as though looking through a dusty windowpane. The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”. Fallen Angels(1995), Chungking Express(1994), and In the Mood for Love(2001), to name a few, are central pieces of such an aesthetic.


In the Mood for Love(2001)  has an enduring beauty and examines how silence, time, distance, and context can crystallise into intimacy. The opening intertitle sets the general tone of the film: “It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered… to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.”. As the title suggests, this is a story about moods; two people fall in love but won’t dare to show it explicitly due to moral constraints: “For us to do the same thing would mean we are no better than they are”. 


Mr. Chow’s wife and Su Li-zhen’s husband – played by the astonishing Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk – are having an affair. Their shared experience and distress create a bond which brings them emotionally closer.


There is no extraordinary “action” in this movie. Their monotone acquaintances are seemingly formal, and their discussions could categorize as small talk. Intimacy is created through what it is implied, rather than shown – love is implicit and subtle. Their connection intensifies through distance and abstinence, and it is never fully satisfied; their moral code is too strong to be broken, and their shame would be unbearable. The audiences are waiting in discomfort.


Wong Kar-wai’s insinuations unsettle the viewer. The mis-en-scene is suggestive, saturated with deep colours of noir which match the states of mind of the two characters. The intentional use of red, green, yellow, and blue harmonises with the mood of the scene and produces compositional complexity; small gestures and every-day activities become hyperbolically meaningful, emanating discomfort and silent grief. As Robert Daniel notes, emotions have been buried and must be kept inside forever. The fear of sordidness clashes with an opposing need for purity.


Wong Kar-wai’s sensuous cinema is an emotional anchor to intimacy. His cinematic gems are a reassurance that we can still connect to people, even though things might get messy and a bit emotional. But if you are not afraid of such things, embark on this exciting journey – it could prove very rewarding.


Image: Mike Von via Unsplash.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel